Dear Readers, it might seem a bit early to start talking about all things Christmas-related, but the flowers of the Christmas rose are so striking that I couldn’t resist. Spotted in a window box on the County Roads in East Finchley, they are not roses at all but hellebores, members of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae). That the Latin species name for this plant (niger) means ‘black’ when the flower is pure white is a little confusing, but it probably refers to the roots. The word ‘Helleborus’ comes from the Greek words ellos, meaning ‘fawn’ and bora, meaning ‘food’ – I love the idea of young deer munching upon it, although some commentators remark that it is deer resistant. The grazers would have to be careful though, because, like all hellebores, Christmas rose is poisonous, though probably less so than some other species. Handling the seeds can cause skin irritation as well. It is also toxic to dogs and cats, so be careful if you have pets and want to bring the plant indoors.
In spite of its poisonous nature, Christmas rose has been used medicinally, as a purgative following poisoning, and as a antihelminthic (a new word to me) for parasites in children. Too much hellebore, however, and it’s quite possible to kill the child. It has also been used as a laxative. I would strongly advise leaving it to look pretty in the garden in the dark early months of the year rather than adding it to a sandwich.
In the wild, Christmas rose is an Alpine plant, found in Switzerland, southern Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and northern Italy. I suspect that the flowers will be rather smaller in the wild than in our gardens. This can be a difficult plant to grow, preferring humus-rich soil and dappled shade, and disliking acidity, but when it’s happy, it’s delightful.
Traditionally, Christmas rose was said to have arisen from the tears of a young girl who had no gift to give to the infant Christ. It often isn’t in flower by Christmas, but may be bursting forth by 6th January, which was Christmas Day under the old Julian calendar. Obviously the ones that I photographed hadn’t got the memo about their flowering date. It is also believed that standing on powder made from the roots of a Christmas rose will make you invisible, which is a splendid idea, what with Christmas coming and all those crowds to navigate. Should you have the urge to dig a Christmas rose up you should, according to Pliny, make sure that you are not spotted by an eagle, because the bird will swoop down and cause your death (an unlikely event in East Finchley but then I’m extremely risk averse). Pliny also suggests that, having scanned the sky for any birds of prey, you should draw a circle around the plant, face east and offer up a prayer before picking up your spade.
No other luminary than Charles Darwin, with his usual close attention, noticed something unusual about the change in the Christmas rose once it’s pollinated. The pure white flower goes green, and its shape changes, as can clearly be seen in the photo below, where the blooms show the various stages of the change, from top to bottom. I’m not sure whether this a plant strategy to deter insects from trying to pollinate a flower that is already impregnated, or just a sign, as Darwin thought, that the plant colour is related to the production of nectar which is not required once the bloom has fulfilled its purpose. Of course, it could also be both. Nature is nothing if not complex and interconnected.
And here is a rather lovely poem by Michael Newman, published online by Acumen magazine.It seems to me to sum up the unexpected quality of plants that bloom in the midwinter. They always feel so precious, for being so rare.
The flower rises
From the soil,
Then opens into white apparition,
The Christmas Rose.
On such a grey and rain-rotten day,
I welcome this affirmation
Of unbridled joy:
Photo One by By Robert Hundsdorfer – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 de, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=19318105
Photo Two by No machine-readable author provided. Migas assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons